"I do not know of any fields in which professionals enjoy their work more than geologists do. Perhaps this is due to the uniqueness of work in the geological sciences. What other science requires the use of both the mind and body?" ——John Wakabayashi
Science is a labor of the mind and will, but some of its specialties call upon the muscles as well. Perhaps the foremost of those is geology. I believe geologists are the fittest of scientists and, aside from one or two specific hazards, the most likely to have long and productive lives.
The geologist's fieldwork is the kind of freeform, nonrepetitive workout that gyms can't offer:
- For legs and feet there's lots of walking, kneeling, crouching and standing on tiptoe at outcrops.
- For core strength and cardiovascular fitness there's carrying a pack while scrambling over boulders, slogging down streambeds and clambering around quarries. There's reaching high overhead for that elusive mineral pocket and lying down at full length to get the closest view of an exposure.
- For the upper body there's turning and lifting rocks, as well as the free-weight exercise known as using a rock hammer. There's drilling core, holding maps in the breeze, pushing aside brush.
- Lastly, geologists talk using their hands and arms vigorously. This is especially true of structural geologists. There's a joke that the way to shut geologists up is to tie their arms down.
Carrying specimens back to the vehicle combines all of these. And every minute of the day is different.
A day in the field leaves one pleasantly tired and ready for a mild muscle relaxant. This accounts, I believe, for the widespread appreciation of good drink and roadhouses among geologists.
All that said, geology is not enjoyable if you aren't in good shape. Professor Barb Dutrow of Louisiana State University leads her students in a simple fitness program each year in the months before summer field camp.
At every step geologists are also using their eyes and minds. Geology seems particularly to call upon multiple intelligences as well as the method of multiple working hypotheses.
Fieldwork is motion with a point—it is constant observation. They say that the best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks. Seeing rocks is an intense mental workout in four dimensions, three in space and one in time. The minerals, textures, fabric, colors and fossils all must be noted and assessed. The regional setting and neighboring rocks bear on the immediate scene as well.
When rocks are brought back to the laboratory, all the field evidence must be kept in mind there too—and when the field site is revisited, the lab results may change what to look at. Indeed, they may change what is being seen.
The ability to plan complex undertakings and change plans on the fly is an essential geologic skill. Whether it's equipment breakdowns, injury or illness in the team, bad weather, the threat of wild animals, or salvaging a failed expedition, mental fitness is what prevails. The exemplar in this respect is one-armed geologist John Wesley Powell, who led the first expedition down the Grand Canyon in 1869 without a map and emerged a hero.
Mental exercise is known to help prevent or forestall dementias related to age, such as Alzheimer's disease. Playing chess works, but the geologist's open-ended kind of mental exercise is better suited to our native brain. Geologists who teach or give presentations—that is, most of them—get the same stimulation year round. And in a field that many can excel in, but none can master, the challenge of geology never fades.
The day is long gone when geology was a solo occupation. Well-run teams do better science than individuals. The best geologist must not only see the most rocks, but must work well with the most people. The best geologist is effective in email as well as in the field: a glance at the authorship of journal articles shows that collaborators may be anywhere in the world.
A geologist may deal with suspicious landowners to gain access to their property, not to mention strangers in the woods and petty officials in foreign countries. All of these possibilities call for good social skills. And after every interaction, geologists have another story to tell each other.
Hazards of the Field
Physical, mental and social fitness go far in the field, but some special hazards wait there too. Bears and wolves and other large animals make firearms a necessity in many areas. Falls, cuts and sprains require skill with first aid. There are hazardous plants to watch out for, too. Although technology makes hunger, thirst and getting lost less likely than in the old days, a passing familiarity with wilderness survival is good to have.
Then there's the sun. Long hours in the sun, especially at high altitude, make skin cancer an occupational hazard for geologists.